OF ALL the cats none bears so evil a reputation as the panther. His ferocity is proverbial, his wiliness uncanny, the force and fury of his attack demoniacal. But all these things the ape-man knew and was prepared for. He had weighed his chances with the panther against his chances with Woora, and he had chosen the lesser of two evils first in the belief that thus he might rid himself of both. And now in a few seconds his judgment would be vindicated, or he would be dead.
The black beast charged with all the fury of its kind, and it charged in silence. No growls disturbed the deathly still ness of the night. A serene moon looked down upon the village of the Zuli, and beyond the confines of the compound there was no warning of death.
Lord looked down upon the swift tragedy with something of contempt for the stupidity that would permit a man to throw his life away uselessly, and from another window two deep-set, glowing eyes watched above snarling lips—watched from the window of the room that was Woora’s.
Grasping the hardwood rod in both hands, Tarzan swung it above his head in a great circle that started low at his right side, timing it to the fraction of a second so that it met the panther with its full momentum, backed by the strength of the ape-man’s giant thews, at the height of the beast’s speed.
Full upon the fierce, flat skull it fell before the protracted talons or bared fangs could reach the flesh of the panther’s intended prey. There was the sound of splintering wood and bone, the thud of the heavy body upon the hard ground, then silence.
Lord drew in his breath in a quick gasp. Although he had seen the thing with his own eyes, he could scarcely believe. The eyes at Woora’s window were filled with a sudden fear—with fear and cunning. They watched intently to see what the next move of the strange prisoner would be.
Tarzan placed a foot upon the carcass of his kill and raised his face to Goro the Moon. Just for an instant he stood thus, but no victory cry of the bull ape shocked the silence of the night to warn his enemies that he was abroad. Then he moved in the direction of the window that opened into the room of Woora, the magician; and as he did so, the eyes receded into the darkness of the interior.
The ape-man paused at the open window while his ears and his nostrils searched the dark chamber. His ears heard a faint rustling sound as of the scuffing of sandaled feet upon a floor and the almost silent closing of a door. His nostrils caught clearly the scent of Woora.
Placing a hand upon the sill, Tarzan vaulted silently into the room. He stood in silence, listening, in one hand the splintered remains of the hardwood rod. He heard no sound, not even the faintest sound of breathing that his ears would have detected had there been another in the room. He concluded, then, that Woora had seen him coming and that the slight noises he had heard had been caused by the magician’s departure. Now he must be doubly on his guard.
Lord had told him that there were three rooms in Woora’s suite. There was also the throne-room adjoining. To which room had the man fled? Had he gone to summon help? This was probable, yet Tarzan heard no sound to indicate that anyone was coming.
The faint moonlight dissipated but slightly the darkness of the room, yet it was enough for the keen eyes of the ape-man as they became accustomed to the gloom. He advanced noiselessly into the apartment, and presently he saw a door in the wall before him and another at his right. The latter, he judged, must lead into the throne-room. He approached the other and found the latch.
Noiselessly he pulled the door toward him, keeping partially behind it to shield himself from a surprise blow or a missile. The room was dark as a pocket. He listened intently but heard nothing. His nostrils told him that Woora had been there recently, but his ears assured him that he had gone—probably into the farthest apartment.
He stepped into the room, bent upon searching the next and last. He knew that Woora had come this way and that he would find him beyond the next door. He felt something beneath his feet that felt like cords laid upon the floor. Instantly he was suspicious—the suspicion of the wild animal that senses a trap.
He started to retreat to the room he had just quitted—but too late. Cords sprang up around him. They pulled at him and tripped him, so that he fell. Then he felt them closing and tightening about him. He struggled to escape them, but they were everywhere. He was entangled in a mesh of cords.
The door of the third room opened letting in light. In the doorway stood Woora, a cresset in his hand. His death’s head face was contorted in a snarling grin. Behind the magician, Tarzan caught a glimpse of a room that might have been the laboratory of a medieval alchemist but for the grisly array of human heads that depended from the beams of the ceiling.
The apartment was lighted by several cressets, and upon a table in the center lay the great emerald of the Zuli, radiating its weird and baleful light, so that the entire chamber was filled with a seemingly palpable essence that was, in some way, mysteriously malign.
“You court an earlier and more horrible death than we had planned for you,” squeaked Woora.
The ape-man made no reply. He was examining the trap that had caught him. It was a heavy net of rawhide the mouth of which could be pulled from the floor and closed by a cord that ran through a block depending from a ceiling beam and thence through a hole near the ceiling into the room where Woora had waited to snare his prey. It was plain to Tarzan that this room was devoted solely to the purposes of the net, forming the magician’s final protection against an assassin who sought his life.
In this he was only partially right, as previously all of its victims had been invited to his innermost sanctum by the magician and, rendered helpless in the net, easily murdered. Tonight it served a new purpose.
Satisfied with the success of his strategy in luring the stranger to this room, Woora was in a pleasant frame of mind. The fear and the anger had left his eyes. He surveyed the ape-man with interest.
“You intrigue me,” he said. “I shall keep you here for a while to examine you. Perhaps you will get hungry and thirsty, but one who is shortly to die has no need of food or drink. But you shall watch me eat and drink, and you shall meditate upon the various slow and torturing deaths that man may die. I promise you that I shall select something novel and protracted for you, if only to avenge the killing of my pet—the one creature in all the world that I really loved. You shall die many deaths for that and not a few for seeking to destroy me or steal the great emerald. I do not know which you planned doing, nor do I care. Either warrants the direst punishment of which I can conceive.
“In the meantime, I shall show you that Woora can be kind even to an enemy. It is well for you that I am neither cruel nor vindictive. I would save you from unnecessary suffering, from mental anguish induced by the sight of horrible or suggestive objects. Watch me closely.”
As he ceased speaking he stepped into the adjoining room where he busied himself lighting the charcoal in a brazier. It took some time to produce a hot fire; but when this was accomplished, he fetched a long metal rod with a sharpened point and a wooden handle. The point he inserted among the hot coals; then he turned his attention once more to the apeman.
“The human heads upon the walls of my apartment, the paraphernalia of my profession, the preparations that I must make for your torture and death; the sight of these things would prove most depressing to you and add unnecessarily to your suffering; therefore I am going to burn out your eyes so that you cannot see them!”
And yet the ape-man did not speak. His level gaze remained fixed upon the repulsive figure of the old magician and the weird setting in which he wrought his villainies, all bathed in the unholy green light of the great emerald. What his thoughts were only he knew, but it is safe to assume that they were not of death—not of his own death. Probably they were of escape. He tested the strength of the rawhide net. It gave, but it did not break.
Woora saw him and laughed. “A bull elephant could not break that,” he said. With his grotesque head cocked upon one side he stared intently at his victim. The laugh died on his lips, leaving a snarl. He was angry because the ape-man showed no fear. He looked to the iron, muttering and mumbling to himself. It had grown hot; the point glowed.
“Take a last look, my guest,” cackled Woora, “for after a moment you will never again see anything.” He withdrew the iron from the coals and approached his prisoner.
The strands of the net closed snugly about the ape-man, confining his arms; so that though he could move them, he could move them neither quickly nor far. He would have difficulty in defending himself against the glowing point of the iron rod.
Woora came close and raised the red-hot iron to the level of Tarzan’s eyes; then he jabbed suddenly at one of them. The victim warded off the searing point from its intended target. Only his hand was burned. Again and again Woora jabbed; but always Tarzan succeeded in saving his eyes, yet at the expense of his hands and forearms.
At his repeated failures to blind his victim, Woora became convulsed with rage. He screamed and cursed as he danced about, foaming at the mouth; then, quite suddenly, he gained control of himself. He carried the iron back to the brazier and inserted it among the coals; then he stepped to another part of the room that was not in line with the doorway, and therefore outside the range of Tarzan’s vision. He was gone for but a moment, and when he returned he carried a rope in his hand.
He was chuckling again as he approached Tarzan. “The iron will be hotter this time,” he said, “and this time it will reach your eyes.”
He passed the rope around the net and Tarzan and made a slip noose and drew it tight; then he walked around and around the ape-man, binding his hands and his arms with many coils of rope until Tarzan had no use of them for protection.
Now he went to the brazier and withdrew the iron. It glowed strangely red in the weird green light of the chamber. With it, Woora crept slowly toward his victim as though he were trying to prolong the agony of suspense; but Tarzan gave no evidence of fear. He knew that he was helpless, and he awaited the inevitable with stoic indifference.
Suddenly Woora was seized by another spasm of fury. “You pretend that you are not afraid,” he screamed, “but I’ll make you shriek for mercy yet. First the right eye!” And he came forward again, holding the red point on a level with the ape-man’s eyes.
Tarzan heard the door behind him open. He saw Woora shrink back, a new expression of fury writ upon his face; then a man leaped past him carrying a stout wooden bar in his hand. It was Lord.
Woora turned to flee into the next apartment, but Lord overtook him, striking him a glancing blow on the head with the rod. The magician turned then and sought to defend himself with the hot iron. He screamed for mercy and for help; but there was no mercy in Lord’s attack, and no help came.
Wielding the rod in both hands, the Englishman struck the iron from Woora’s hand, breaking the arm at the wrist; then he swung it again furiously, crashing full on the grotesque skull; and with a splintering and crushing of bone Woora sank to the floor, dead.
Lord turned to Tarzan. “A close call,” be said.
“Yes, a very close call. I shall not forget it.”
“I saw you kill the panther,” continued Lord. “My word! I’d never have thought it possible. Then I waited. I didn’t know just what to do. Presently I commenced to worry; I knew what a wily old devil Woora was; so I followed you, and it was a good thing that I did.”
While he talked, the Englishman found a knife and cut the bonds and the net that held the ape-man; then the two men examined the contents of the inner room. There was a small furnace in one corner, several retorts and test tubes on a long table, shelves with bottles and vials stored upon them, a small library of occultism, black magic, voodooism. In a little niche, before which stood a chair, there was a crystal sphere. But, dominating all, the center of everything, was the great emerald.
Lord looked at it, spellbound, fascinated. “It is worth over two million pounds sterling,” he said, “and it is ours for the taking! There are still several hours of darkness; and it may be hours more, perhaps days, before anyone discovers that Woora is dead and the emerald gone. They could never overtake us.”
“You forget your friends here,” Tarzan reminded him.
“Any one of them would do the same if he had the chance,” argued Lord. “They will have their freedom. We have given them that. The emerald should be ours.”
“You have also forgotten the Kaji. How will you pass through their country?”
Lord gestured his disgust. “There is always something; but you’re right—we can’t escape except with a large force.”
“There is a question whether you can escape Mafka even then,” said Tarzan. “I’ve seen some evidence of his power. By comparison, Woora’s didn’t amount to much.”
“Well, then, what?”
“I’ll go ahead and try to dispose of Mafka,” said Tarzan.
“Good! I’ll go with you.”
The ape-man shook his head. “I must go alone. Mafka’s occult powers are such that he can control the actions of his victims even at great distances, but for some reason he has no power over me. He might have over you. That is the reason I must go alone; he might sense the presence of another with me and through him learn my plans—his powers are most uncanny.”
As he ceased speaking, Tarzan picked up the great emerald, and wrapped it in a bit of cloth he had torn from a banging on the wall.
Lord’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing that for?” he demanded.
“I’m taking the emerald with me. It will insure my getting an audience with Mafka.”
Lord gave a short, ugly laugh. “And you think you can get away with that?” he demanded. “What do you take me for—a fool?”
Tarzan knew the greed of men. That was one of the reasons he liked beasts so well. “If you try to interfere,” he said, “I’ll know that you are a fool—you saw what I did to the panther and how easily.”
“What do you want with two million pounds? Maybe three million—God alone knows what it’s worth. There’s plenty for both of us.”
“I don’t want any of it,” replied the ape-man. “I have all the wealth I need. I’m going to use it to get some of my people away from Mafka. When that is done, I won’t care what becomes of it.”
He tied two cords to the package holding the emerald. One he looped over his head, the other he tied around his waist holding the package close to his body. He picked up the knife that Lord had laid on the table and stuck it in his own scabbard; then he found a long piece of rope which he coiled and slung across a shoulder.
Lord watched him sullenly. He remembered the panther and knew that he was helpless to prevent the stranger taking the emerald.
“I’m going now,” said Tarzan. “Wait a day, and then follow with all those who want to get out. No matter whether I’m successful or not you may have to fight your way through the Kaji, but with Mafka out of the way you’ll stand a much better chance. If I get through, I’ll cache the emerald on the Neubari near the mouth of the Mafa and go on about my business. In about three weeks I shall be back again; then I’ll turn the emerald over to the Zuli.”
“To the Zuli!” exclaimed Lord. “Where do I come in? The emerald belongs to me, and you’re trying to cheat me out of it. Is this what I get for saving your life?”
Tarzan shrugged. “It is none of my business,” he said. “I do not care who gets the emerald. You told me there was a plan afoot to take it and with the proceeds finance all the Zuli in their desire to go and live in civilization. I did not know that you planned to betray your comrades.”
Lord’s eyes could not meet those of the ape-man, and he flushed as he replied. “I’ll see that they get theirs,” he said, “but I want to control it. What do they know about business? They’d be cheated out of everything in a month.”
“On the Neubari in three weeks, then,” said the ape-man, as he turned and quit the apartment.
As Tarzan vaulted the sill of the window in the outer room and started across the compound where lay the dead body of the black panther, Lord opened the door leading to the throne-room and hastened at a run to the guard-room, his mind busy with a plan based on the belief that the stranger intended to make off with the great emerald and keep it for himself.